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The Donkey Cart

By Pamela Beets, GCFP & Lisa Crispin, workshop participant


Over the past fifteen years I have been giving Functional Integration® lessons to equestrians mounted, either privately or in workshops. Riders have a variety of concerns: posture, connection with their horses, balance, honing the cues to specific movements such as a canter pirouette. It is always interesting, challenging and fun teaching riders different ways to be aware of themselves and their horses. This was one of the more unusual Functional Integration requests I’ve had at a riding workshop.

I knew this would be a sitting lesson. Not your normal sitting lesson on the table or chair - it was in a donkey cart- with a very dignified donkey. In this lesson, Lisa wanted her mini-donkey, the admirable Chester to learn to move forward as he pulled his cart at the trot on verbal command. (He worked off verbal command at the walk and halt.) Lisa thought perhaps there was something she was doing with her body or hands that prevented him from trotting. He also would not maintain the trot, needing to be cued repeatedly. She could ask him to trot with a gentle tap of the driving whip. Chester didn’t seem to mind the whip much but for Lisa, even the softest cue with the whip was too much whip for gentle Chester.

Lisa is an accomplished driver, winning competitions with her skill in driving through obstacles and weight pulls. She is also a beautiful rider. I have watched her drive and ridden in the donkey cart with her while she drove. She has such an extraordinary connection with her donkeys and understands their subtlest expressions and needs.

I’ve done some horse driving in single and double hitch, and a bit of donkey driving at this farm, so I knew this lesson would be creative. But I was a bit uncertain since driving is not as easy as it looks. The translation of intention through six to ten feet or more of rein from the driver’s hands to the mouth of the horse, or in this case, donkey, has to be exact. The driver has to rate speed, direction, anticipate changes and cue at the right time to allow the donkey time to coordinate the cues and respond. Or, quite literally, you can have a wreck.

I really couldn’t imagine what would encourage Chester to trot on verbal command. In the best Feldenkrais® tradition of exploration and curiosity I walked out into the field wondering what in the world I was going to do.

I know in working with mounted riders that tiny changes affect the horse and its performance significantly. The most attentive of riders are often surprised at how little changes so much for the horse. There were so many more variables to consider in adding a complex harness and cart to the equation. The cart has its own weight and balance, it is hooked through harness and shafts, which have weight and the shafts restrict movement such as bending in a turn. The harness itself is heavy and comprised of many pieces that hook together: to the donkey, to the cart and then connecting to the driver. During the lesson the infinitesimal changes in Lisa’s balance, hand rotation, and back softness all had significant reverberations for Chester. 

We worked with several concepts: balance in Lisa’s hands, feet and sitting placement in the cart. Position: including elevation and rotation of Lisa’s hands and wrists, feet placement, where Lisa held the whip on the handle, where she sat on the seat and how far forward or back. We added the concept of softness in her body while keeping her posture correct for driving. We also included the idea of Lisa’s “internal space,” the space inside of her ribcage and inside of the pelvis, so those areas had definition and connection to her arms and hands and were part of her use and awareness in driving. The idea of internal space could be part of the cues for Chester, in that directing this space would slightly change her balance, which Chester could interpret as a cue to turn or stop or go forward.

Here I am standing in a field talking about the subtleties of movement and experimenting with them and wondering how a donkey is going to conceptualize or respond to this with eager forward movement at a verbal command. While Lisa and I were still trying to figure this out, Chester got it and started happily trotting off. Chester understood what we were looking for almost before we did and showed this by trotting. Lisa and I were both a bit surprised; we expected this to be much more difficult than it was.

The original idea was to give Lisa a sitting lesson in the donkey cart. The experience unfolded to be so much bigger than that. I read a quote from Allison Glock-Cooper about the power of love, “What matters is the connection to one soul to another, the elemental magic that convinces you that you matter.” The moment when the lesson transformed from merely the mechanics of driving to Lisa and Chester’s acknowledgement of each other humbled and inspired me. There is deep and beautiful bond between Lisa and Chester: Lisa’s desire to improve her driving is based entirely on appreciating him as an intelligent being, a friend. Though the driving whip is used in the most conscientious and gentle manner, less is more. The quality of communication matters. Lisa is mindful of Chester’s self-awareness and sentience - he matters.

For me the question in working with horse and rider or driver and donkey is, who is the lesson really for? This work is so unknowable in many respects. As teachers or practitioners, we don’t know an individual’s inner self and inner experience of a lesson. What it means for them at the most transcendent level is unknowable to us. I trust that each individual knows and understands his or her own needs in response to Functional Integration or Awareness Through Movement.® Intelligence, sentience, two nervous systems communicating—we talk so much about this, and wonder what it really means. But Chester and Lisa know.

Lisa Crispin,Workshop Student:

Working with Pam transformed my dressage skills with horses, so I had no doubt she could help me with the donkeys. It was exciting for me to apply what we had just felt in the Awareness Through Movement exercises to driving. This was a remarkably enlightening experience.

Chester responded right away as Pam made adjustments on my shoulders and hands, and I tried to apply what we had practiced in the lesson that morning. I had a habit of clenching the ends of the lines between my knees so they wouldn’t trail down and get caught in the cart wheels. Pam suggested that I knot the lines so I could keep my knees open and parallel. She had me sit tall and look between Chester’s ears, just like I would while riding a horse. I relaxed my knees and elbows, and felt the weight of my feet on the cart.

One of the most surprising moments was seeing how pointing my knees in the direction of the turn helped with turning, especially pivots – Chester was spinning the cart around like a reining horse! The things Pam told me to do made lots of sense once I did them but I hadn’t thought of them on my own.

Pam worked on my arms, hands, shoulders and head, and suggested things to try. Then I experimented for a few minutes as Pam observed and gave me more ideas. Sometimes I’d try something to get Chester trotting, and he’d halt. This was interesting! I’d ask myself, “What did I do there that will be useful when I really do want to halt?” Other times he would sail right into a trot and stay there, without me having to use a whip aid. I was so excited by the dramatic results.

A few days later, I tried the same experiments with Ernest, a champion obstacle-driving donkey whom we refer to as “the good donkey.” He’s a few years older than Chester, a steady worker. My new body position and energy took him to a new level, responding to the lightest of aids. Areas where he struggled before, such as the “reinback,” improved. (The reinback is a complex set of movements in which the donkey halts then takes a step back to rest and remain ready for the next cue. Backing up with a cart is a difficult maneuver for the donkey). Chester has also improved with each session since my clinic with Pam.

When I hitched both Ernest and Chester to their arena drag and worked the dressage arena (our favorite job at Infinity Farms), I paid attention to my posture, kept my shoulders and chest squared at their ears, thought about pointing my body in the direction of turns, thought about my breathing and energy. I wasn’t really expecting much – after all, there was no weight from shafts that might tell them what I was doing, no aids other than the lines, my voice and the whip. However, I saw a difference right away. They kept together better, moved straighter, and turned more responsively. When we drag the arena, we often have to make very tight turns, where the donkeys step sideways to turn the drag in the new direction. I feel a bit awkward facing the new direction myself in these turns, since I’m also trying to keep them moving forward, but it does keep them turning better. I can tell that Ernest “gets it” more than Chester, but we’re all learning.

One thing I have always valued about the Feldenkrais Method and working with Pam is that the lessons always stay with me. I might forget exactly what Pam said or did, but the feeling remains and I can repeat my successes. I’m having a ball continuing to experiment and improve, whether I’m driving the donkeys solo or as a team, with a cart or ground driving. I’m sure the donkeys are enjoying themselves more too!

Pamela Beets, a lifelong horse lover, has been riding and training horses since age nine and has been practicing since 1991, specializing working with riders and horses of all disciplines. She currently resides in Colorado.

Contact information: 303-788-1803 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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